The Simon and Kirby Library: Crime

Crime

B+

When it comes to comic book genres defined by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, crime fiction probably doesn’t immediately leap to mind. Yet the truth is that these two visionaries, who are fully or partially responsible for a number of the comic mediums’ top characters at both major publishers, found success in basically everything they touched, from superhero stories to horror to romance. The Simon & Kirby Library: Crime collects 34 pulpy tales originally published between 1947-1955, a time when superhero books had trouble finding an audience and comics readers sought out something a little different. The stories contained herein should prove invaluable to comics historians, and a lot of what made them so attention-getting over half a century ago still holds interest today.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, but Jack Kirby’s celebrated gritty, detailed and kinetic artistic style lends itself very well to the crime genre, especially when it comes to depicting the dirty denizens of the underworld. Various mobsters’ chiseled physiques and worn-down faces absolutely pop in Kirby’s hands, and all the tricks he learned choreographing dynamic action in superhero comics shows itself in full supply here. In place of superpowers, this book’s characters instigate action with the almighty gun. It’s really interesting seeing the way each of these stories portrays (or opts out of portraying) weapon violence on the page; it almost seems like every shot fired creates a gravity well around which the rest of these stories orbit. And in over 300 pages there are a lot of really excellent single-panel compositions from “The King.” Among my favorites: a bullet stuck in a thick windshield obscures a driver’s eye and the cracks it forms make him look monstrous, an empty noose frames its next victim through the magic of perspective, and Guy Fawkes wards off English soldiers in a brilliant two-page spread.

On the story front, Joe Simon’s scripts are mostly morality tales centered on a simple concept that’s often presented in bold text so we readers can’t miss it — crime does not pay. Despite the fact that society’s heroes always come out on top here and status quo is maintained, these books caused quite a controversy in the late ’40s; critics felt that they glorified delinquent behavior. That claim’s specious at best, and often flat-out wrong, but as a result one gets the sense that some of these tales have been a bit neutered (for example, the aforementioned recap of Guy Fawkes’ rebellion makes no mention of the many citizens who idolize him, paying heed only to his condemnation). Still, there are some pretty interesting, even complex nuggets of story here. My favorite is the last in this book, “The Debt” (also the last published — in 1955) which deals with the moral struggles of a police officer whose son is saved by a wanted murderer. While the story ultimately ends in empty moralizing, the dilemma it poses is nonetheless worth considering. Several other stories, like “Queen of the Speed-Ball Mob” and “Gun Moll!”, ask us to consider the effects social inequity might play in turning people, especially minorities, towards crime. Even hidden inside a staunchly conservative exterior, then, these stories give liberals something to glom onto.

Interestingly, a lot of the stories in this volume attempt to convince you of their reality. Many plainly adapt the lives of famous criminals like John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson (which produces an interesting effect as you get deeper into this book and these gangsters’ paths begin to intersect), although the helpful introductory essay by famed crime novelist Max Allan Collins points out that many of these vignettes play it fast and loose with biographical material. Do these stories attempt to adhere to real-world facts to better sell the morality tales they represent, or does this reflect the comic-buying public of the time, who were tired of fantastical caped adventurers and wanted to read something perhaps more relevant to them? The answer’s a little bit of both, I suspect. There’s almost a fetishization of biographical material here; these comics lean more on actual dates and geography than most, which suggests to me this period had a fascination with the whole gangster milieu (although, note to the ghost of Jack Kirby: Chicago Heights, IL does not possess a line of skyscrapers).

Titan Books does an excellent job repackaging these stories, many of which are reprinted here for the first time. They’ve called in colorist Harry Mendryk to make these visuals pop for a modern audience, and he certainly succeeds in doing so; his colors are lush and vivid but to my mind remain faithful to the original work of Kirby and Simon. Additionally, the packaging here’s top-notch; this is a book you should be proud to put in your library.

At the end of the day, Kirby and Simon will likely be remembered primarily for their contributions to superhero comics, iconic characters like Captain America, the X-Men and the entire Fourth World. But it’s always a treat to see masters of their craft at work in any setting, and that’s what Crime gives us. Though the comics medium has advanced significantly since 1947, still there are few storytellers to rival the work of these two pioneers. For that reason alone, this is a book worth looking at.

tags: crime, jack kirby, joe simon

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